Over the past 30 years, I have ridden a morale roller coaster within several organizations. Morale is very situational and can be one of an organization’s biggest assets, or it can be the liability that never goes away. Individual morale and organizational morale are separate but very much interconnected.
There are some people who have terrible morale all the time; this is part of their DNA. The sky is always falling, the end is near, and we are all doomed. Often, their emotional state is not related to any particular situation-they are just miserable people. Unfortunately, they are also very vocal and elicit an almost automatic sympathetic response of agreement from the rest of us. It is often natural and easy to jump on board with this emotional vampire, and pretty soon you find yourself seeing who can outdoom the other. There isn’t much you can do about these persuasive members, so do yourself a favor and don’t hire them in the first place.
There are, however, situations that cause morale to wane in individuals. For example, when you have someone who loves the fire service, is motivated and dedicated, but finds himself in an assignment that he just doesn’t like. Or someone is working to get something accomplished or implemented and gets turned down. These temporary declines in morale are experienced by everyone just the same as morale highs that are the result of accomplishment or being in the assignment you have wanted.
I have been told that morale was never an organizational problem for the chief or officers to resolve and that bad or low morale was strictly an individual’s own problem. “You choose your morale, not me,” was a favorite saying of a chief I knew who would follow up with, “I got mine.” This, of course, did nothing to help the morale of those who heard it. I don’t buy that philosophy, and I think bad morale is one of the most concerning organizational problems that can exist-and can destroy the organization.
Organizational morale is usually never as bad as the lowest morale of an individual but never as high as some make it out to be. “I’ve been here ___ years and I have never seen morale this low,” is a quote that we have all heard or said at some point in our careers. Luckily for us, our brain has the ability to block out many morale-killing events, and the time and distance from them seem to shield and change our perspective of the past situation. We will often even refer back to that bad experience in a new context and proclaim, “I wish (so and so) was back; it wasn’t this bad back then!”
The bad morale dilemma is most often attributed to pay or benefit cost cuts and increases by the members themselves. Again, these gains and losses only affect the individual immediate morale and not the long-term organizational morale. In retrospect, most people were happiest in their career when they were making the least amount of money-as they first entered the service. So what happens to us, and how do we deal with it?
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is certainly a critical factor in our morale. When we find ourselves struggling with morale issues, it is important to understand and identify the root cause of the problem rather than mandate participation in events that typically occur as a result of good morale; it will be located in one of those levels of the pyramid. Usually for our members, it falls in those middle sections of esteem, belonging, and safety. So, when solving these highly complex situations, think about them in terms of how the organization creates the environment for esteem. Are we building each other’s confidence, or is it everyone for themselves? Are we providing opportunities for advancement, or is advancement based on relationships? Do we respect others and demonstrate it through our actions? Do we foster friendships? Do we create a family environment? Do we provide security by creating a stable employment environment free from harassment and threats, or do we maintain a constant uncertainty?
Beyond a Picnic
The answers to these questions will be different for each person based on their current situation, and organizational morale issues can’t be solved or destroyed by one person. The leaders must create an environment for good morale to flourish and let the members take control of it. Morale is part of your emotional state based on your experiences. Having a high-trust organization is synonymous with high morale. Having an empowering culture is synonymous with high morale. If you want to improve morale and create trust, you must make sound management decisions based on principle and mission, empower people, and give them freedom. Never think that it is as easy as some trinket, event, or initiative.
If you find yourself in a meeting discussing how to improve morale, don’t fall for the “We should bring back the department picnic” suggestion. The well-attended, fun, can’t-wait-for event that used to occur was the product of trust, good decision making, and empowerment; it was not the cause of it. It was a bottom-up initiative supported and funded by those at the top. If the executive staff is the group planning and organizing the picnic or event, then you are trying to mandate an outcome without addressing the tough issues facing your organization. Putting makeup on a pale patient doesn’t cure him of his condition, painting the station wall doesn’t get rid of the termites and water leaks, washing the engine every day won’t ensure that it will pass the pump test, and morale can’t be mandated or fixed with a picnic.
Morale is a complex gumbo that is part environment, part opportunity, part leadership, and whole lot of past experiences. Focusing specifically on “morale” never works and always results in some superficial actions or material goods being purchased that end up being resented by those who have low morale. A much better strategy is focusing on making the organization great while adding value and a true spirit of appreciation to the lives of those in the organization. The long-term gain of good morale can’t be bought or traded like merchandise; it is an emotional connection between the workers, managers, leaders, and elected officials.